Cuba is a pretty special place. So much energy and creativity. As an artist, it really is a dream come true to be able to witness Havana in its pure, untainted & unchanged form.
There was definitely a bit of culture shock to acclimate to along with the language barrier. Thankfully my Spanish was coming back to me, making it so much easier to immerse ourselves in this new world. An added bonus is that Buddy were such a fun duo to share in this experience.
Waking up refreshed is a rarity on the boat. My body was so happy to sleep in a bed (especially after long travel and mental exhaustion). Apparently I was also the last one awake. Don was up at dawn for a morning photo-shoot of the neighborhood. Seriously where does he find this energy? Jake and Sue were hanging out in the living room, discussing the day’s plan and drinking some fresh-brewed Cuban coffee. YUMMMMM.
It was only 730AM when I pulled myself out of bed – and ONLY because our hostess should arrive soon with breakfast. We weren’t exactly sure what to expect. But 15 minutes later, in walks Leydiana followed by a cute older lady, who introduced herself as Magaly. Leydiana looks to be in her early 40’s and her mother, probably early 60’s. Magaly was much more chatty and could speak English a bit more than her daughter making it easy to converse with her. Plus she was so outgoing and sweet. Her motherly nature definitely showed as she encouraged conversation in Spanish and was really patient (and helpful) at tutoring mistakes.
Meanwhile, Leydiana got right down to it in the small kitchen. She pulled out all sorts of things from her bag – some of which pre-made. Magaly pulled a book from the shelf (which none of us even realized was there) that was an old travel guide of Cuba. Inside it was a map – a huge map that detailed Havana on one side and showed the entire country on the other. She pointed out some places that we MUST visit in the country as well as the city. Then she explained how she lives in the building, and used to live here but now they use this place as an income property (or something of that nature).
Don came back excited by his morning discoveries. That is when I noticed our tiny kitchen table was covered in colorful plates of food. The smell wafting through the air was tantalizing. Leydiana and Magaly guided us over and explained all of the different dishes. Food is one of my specialties in español (plus it was kind of obvious).
- Fresh tropical fruit medley – papaya, guava, pineapple, banana and mango
- Papas rellenas de queso y mantequilla – Potatoes stuffed with cheese & butter
- Savory spinach and pepper crepes
- Roasted eggplant
- Perfect individual-sized scrambled eggs with tomato and cucumber slices
- Cuban cheese-bread toastlettes/li>
- pan francés con azúcar – Cuban french toast
- Guava fruit smoothie
- Cuban coffee
Seriously, the photos don’t do this justice (mostly because we were starving and scarfed it down as quickly as it was made.) Leydiana pre-made some items like the crepes and potatoes but otherwise as we ate, she continued to serve us with additional plates of food and the four of us shared it: family-style.
As we ate, Magaly took her leave. After we couldnt eat another bite, Leydiana insisted that she would clean everything up. Don asked her about the cost of this luxury. I found my Spanish easier today and managed to communicate this question to Leydiana. She told us 5CUC per person, per day. For an authentic, homemade Cuban meal – heck yes!
We finished getting ready (which was just gathering cameras) and left the apartment. Leydiana said she would stay to clean and also asked if she should come tomorrow (which we of course said yes, but at 9AM instead of 8AM).
Another glorious and HOT day in Cuba!
Its nice to walk around and actually have a clue about where we are. It didn’t take long to reach familiar streets of Central Park Square and the huge bank. A line was already forming outside. The entrance was flanked with two guards, who looked like they took their job VERY seriously. They only let in one or two people at a time, so the boys took the lead with our Euros to exchange while Sue and I walked around the block.
We discovered a nearby art museum and made it back to find the boys just came out with our cash. Jake exchanged all of our Euros except a 50 note. Don only exchanged a bit of his smartly so that he wouldn’t spend it all in one place – AND maybe there will be a better exchange someplace.
Now that we have some money and a map, we thought about trying to get to a Cadeca, or local currency exchange. This is where we can get CUP (local Cuban peso) from our CUC (tourist Cuban peso). CUP is only valued at 1/25 of CUC, but we found that some small “food truck” type venues will accept it from tourists. Plus it would be great if we need to hand out tips to musicians or beggars (which we learned later on).
But first, we need to escape the sweltering heat. It was already over 100 degrees with no cloud in sight. We meandered over to El Museo De Bellas Artes. The entrance was grand, as are so many buildings here in the city, but inside was even more exaggerated. There were gigantic ramps that wound around a huge, wide open mezzanine. Sort of an inside-outside type of situation. The architecture inside the facility was much more modern than I would have guessed. There was some surrealistic art – sculptures and such placed around the gift shops and walkways leading to the main buildings. Once we paid our 5CUC each, we made our way up to the first floor, and the start of our self-guided tour.
We were told that we could not photograph anything, and these guards meant business. If they even saw you attempt to hold your camera they would come and yell at you. I didn’t want to get anyone angry (or get arrested) so I put my camera back in my bag (but not before snapping a couple of quick shots of the first room). I know, I’m bad.
We spent almost 3 hours exploring this place top-to-bottom. There was one small section with the super-old prehistoric art. Much of this museum’s work is based around 1950’s and the Revolution as well as modern-day art.
It was a bit challenging to understand the signage (all in Spanish). The handy-dandy dictionary definitely made it easier, but at my slow rate of translation, we wouldn’t be out of here for a week. Then again, I love deciphering the meaning of art work and studying the details.
Its clear that there is a lot of intensity with the use of bold, vivid colors and imagery evoking sexuality, dreams, death, war and utopia. Such extremes in both directions – good and bad. I’m always impressed to learn about artists that create controversy, especially in this country. Though much of it was not spoken about, it was clear that several of the art pieces depicted an unhappy populace due to government rule of leaders like Batista. But even during the Revolution and after, you can see it in the works (though it was never spoken about). Its definitely a fine line that even the museum will travel when discussing these controversies.
As I was lost in my own little world, I realized the rest of the group was moving far and fast ahead. There were 4 levels to this building and we scoped all of them. The group seemed most intrigued by the modern art – lots of mixed media works and surrealistic creation (one of my favorites).
Before we departed, Buddy wanted to pick up some things at the gift shop. It was hard for me to resist the purchase of anything here, because A. I love art and B. it was SUPER inexpensive. But I know there is nowhere to store such things on our tiny little sailboat. Buddy walked away with a bunch of treasures, though (their boat is much larger than ours!) 🙂
OH this is a funny thing. Before we left I hit up the public restroom. In Cuba, there are no toilet seats OR toilet paper (unless you are in a hotel). There are matrons who stand at the door, hand out “napkins” from which you can request 1 or 2. Once you finish your business, they will hand you another to wash/dry your hands. And of course, you are obligated to tip. Unfortunately there was no matron. Only empty stalls with toilet rims and no toilet paper. I guess I’ll have to do the old “squat & shake” maneuver. Mental note: pack toilet paper next time we go to the apartment!
The next mission was to find the Cadeca to get some local CUP. We had a small paper map with a dot that marked the Cadeca (thank you Magaly for that!). But it was almost impossible to read the street names in detail. There are so many cross streets that grid the city it feels impossible to track down our dot without the aid of GPS. But Jake had some tricks up his sleeve in the fashion of his Garmin watch WITH compass!
Jake took the lead and we followed in a straight line, more or less. We walked down a super packed street, Obispo, also known as a tourist-trap (and pickpocket haven if you aren’t careful). It was hard to move through the throngs of street peddlers and showmen & women all trying to divert our attention to their direction (and hopefully some tip money). There were a bunch of restaurants and tiny little shops lining the narrow streets too. It felt way too crowded and WAYYYY too hot.
The Cadeca was about a mile down the way. Its small, shabby facade made it easy to miss and we only stopped because there was such a huge line coming out of it, that it blocked the flow of walking traffic. It would be insanity for all 4 of us to try to get in here, so Don took the lead to go convert our money. In total we would change 40 CUC (20 a piece). If you do the math, it would be almost 1000 CUP. (960).
The heat radiated through the street, made worse by the hoards of people. Sue and I decided to move to the shade, which was only found in the form of outdoor flea-market type shops. We had no real interest in any of the goods, but it was a nice distraction and offered reprieve from the burning sun. The only problem was that it took us awhile to track down Don and Jake again. Thank goodness Jake’s big red beard stands out in the crowd.
We found our way back to familiar stomping grounds and our neighborhood. Don wanted to take us to the bar he visited yesterday, called Bigote Gato, which we nicknamed Cheers. As we walked in, the owner / manager recognized Don and gave him a hug. We were all feeling cheerful at the prospect of cold drinks and Cuban sammies (for an amazing price of only 10CUC total!).
SIESTA TIME – I can totally understand why this custom is a custom. In the scorching heat of the day, the entire city comes to a standstill. Most businesses are closed and many workers go home between 1PM and 6PM. Then they reopen most businesses (other than banks) until midnight. A mandated siesta to ward off heat stroke; BRILLIANT!
Back at the ranch, my feet were burning. I should have worn tennis shoes instead of Toms, which are basically just canvas shoes with no support. Don broke out wads of cash – he asked for small bills at the Cadeca for souvenirs and tips, which is awesome. It made us look like we were all rolling in PHAT dough with all these bills. Too bad this money isn’t worth as much as CUC – still its fun to have. We sat around chatting for awhile. Don wanted to go back to the mercado to get some drinks to stock up our little fridge which was perfect for the heat of the day. Jake and Sandy took naps and I read a bit.
Don was the only one of us NOT exhausted (or he faked it really well) and encouraged us to go back out to hit the streets of Plaza Vieja (where we took pics yesterday). I’m so jealous of his endless energy. And its great because we both wanted to share with Jake and Sue the Plaza Vieja side of town.
Just like yesterday, it was amazing. Not nearly as crowded as Central Park and still so many things to see. We meandered down the streets, taking about a million photos in the process. We made our way passed this area to Plaza San Francisco, Havana Harbor, Plaza de Armas, Plaza de la Catedral, etc. Basically we walked for about 2 hours around the outskirts of the city that line the ocean inlet.
Sue and I were curious about the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, an iconic-fort surrounded by a moat. Its hard to miss. As we headed that way, Don took notice of the line of super cool old cars lined up nearby. They were taxi drivers all vying for our attention to take a ride. He was curious and hung back to negotiate potentially for us to all take a cab ride around the city. He managed to get one of the drivers down to only 10CUC per hour (which is awesome). We all went back over to find the cab driver changed his tune and said we would owe 60CUc for an hour (the old bait and switch). Don tried to argue with the driver about this but they wouldn’t budge. We were all kinda pissed and walked away, but these guys followed us. Thankfully Don warded them off..
In truth, none of us really cared all that much, even Don. He just wanted to snag a deal to have the authentic experience. He’s great at finding those with his wealth of travel knowledge.
Obviously in Cuba, these old-school taxi cab rides are a big tourist attraction. These guys will do anything to lure in a fare, no matter what tactic they use. Obviously they want the most for their money. It seems that locals avoid them and drivers don’t bother with locals either.
Back to the fort. It lured us in. We hoped to go for a tour, but it was closing in 30 minutes. Not enough time to make it worth our while. So we continued along our self-guided tour through an open-air market near Plaza de Catedral. This had a much nicer feel than the crazy crowds on Obispo, and the goods being peddled seemed more authentic. Apparently its local people selling historic relics (money, coins, antiques) of old Cuba. There was also a lot of propaganda here too: all-in-all a really interesting spot. We will definitely come back here! Following along, we passed La Bodeguita Del Medio – famous for its mojitos and history. Another hot spot for tourists, it was packed. Don insisted he must go get a drink from here, for the experience of course!
By late afternoon our dogs were barking…not the wild dogs of Cuba, no our poor feet. The hard concrete certainly wears on you after living in the world of soft sand and water for so long. I could barely stand and needed a break from the heat and noise and crowds. I was so excited when we got to the green facade of Teniente Rey (our apartment) and the big brown door. Jake went to unlock the outer door with no luck. He tried each of the 3 keys to no avail. Seriously?! Don took the keys and tried all of them to no luck.
Our first thought was to call Leydiana (or Magaly, who also lives in this building), but we left the number inside the apartment. Plus our phones don’t have any service here so that wasn’t a viable option. We rang the bell to the front (though not sure that it even works) but hopeful someone inside would answer. That didn’t happen. After another 10 minutes of struggling we figured we would just have to wait until someone comes or goes (there are a lot of people that live here). An old man walked up to us, speaking in Spanish. I couldn’t quite understand but I think he said that he lived here. He pulled out his keys and made wide gesture with them how to open the door. We thought there was some trick to how to work the key. Then he smiled and said that “the trick is that we aren’t using the right key.”
We were given 2 sets of keys and Jake pulled out the wrong ones. No wonder we couldn’t get in. Silly Jake.
The rest of the day we spent chilling in the apartment. It was fun to get to know Buddy better. Don, we learned, is a jokester and extremely well-traveled. Sue is super laid back and go-with-the flow. They make such a good match.
We sat around talking amongst ourselves, learning about each other’s crazy lives and how we all got into sailing. We also decided that it would be really fun to tour this city with someone who can translate (Better than me). Don has a friend who visits Cuba on the regular, and recommended a translator. We thought it would be a perfect opportunity to book him for a proper walking tour of the city with explanations and cultural significance.
Team Bosco opted for a night in, while Buddy planned to go out. Jake and I were tired and looked forward to lounging after walking all day. Don and Sue ended up going out to dinner around 8PM and came back after 10PM. We were fast asleep.
That night I actually dreamt in Spanish – so did Jake. Sue said that Don was talking in Spanish in his sleep, saying “me llamo don”. This crazy language is seeping into all of our brains!
First one to bed, first one awake. I took advantage of the free bathroom and took a quick shower. Its funny how all of us are so used to boat life, that we have no problem sharing this small bathroom as easy as if we each had our own.
We learned about Don and Sue’s eventful night this morning over coffee. Apparently they went out to Obispo street (the one lined with people) in hopes of finding a fun restaurant. And as they walked a bird-dogger (some may call them jumentos because they can be annoying) got their attention. A bird-dogger is someone who is hired by a restaurant (sort of like a human billboard) to try to get people to come in.
That is how Buddy discovered La Calesa Real. From outside it didn’t look like much, but inside it was 5-stars all the way: white linen cloth tables and chairs, waiters in tuxedos live music and salsa dancing. And apparently the food was unbelievable (several courses) and drinks for only 5-6CUC a person. I’m really sorry we missed it.
On their way back to the apartment, they passed by a panaderia (or bakery). Don walked in and asked about the operation from which was invited in back to help roll out bread buns. Seriously how cool is that?!?!
Unfortunately there was a hidden agenda and all the guys in the bakery tried to get him to pay money for letting him partake. Don refused to pay and rightfully so. It left a bad taste on what could have been a super amazing authentic experience. Still, it was fantastic that he tried and I’m sure his rolls were delicious.
Desayuno (breakfast) was fantastic again! There were a few new dishes, and a few less than yesterday, but it was still way more than we could all finish. As we finished up, our translator, Roberto, showed up. Roberto is an older guy – maybe mid-50’s. He is a college professor and extremely knowledgeable about the history of Cuba. He has a really deep voice that immediately reminded me of that actor, Jean Reno, when he spoke. His English was awesome too.
We took advantage of that and asked him to talk to our hostess (or rather ask her) some questions that we had about places to visit nearby. It was nice to understand Leydiana through Roberto. She encouraged us to rent a cab for hire to drive us to the country – Pinar Del Río and Viñales. This is exactly what I wanted, to get a little break from the city and see more of Cuba’s countryside. Tomorrow.
For today, we took full advantage of Roberto’s knowledge of the city and the many questions we filed away since we got here. First of all, we wanted to know about Jose Martí.
Roberto explained to us how Martí is known as the Apostle (or Prophet) of Cuba. He was a very skilled man with words (like a silver-tongue) and very intelligent. Though not a warrior, he could lead and plan for strategy in battle, and did great things for Cuba in his time. But when time came for his first partaking of battle, he died. His ideas were revolutionary and many people of Cuba deem him to be a hero.
As we walked down to Plaza Vieja (our most favorite area), Roberto pointed out that Havana is undergoing a complete transformation – or renovation. In some cases, many of the old facades and structures are being preserved and/or renovated to their former glory. While this is a great thing for some, many feel that it will change Havana to be something lesser than its current-almost-timeless-self. There is a school here, a University, that is dedicated to teaching young students how to preserve relics. Roberto continued walking along pointing out interesting notes about different buildings. The corner of our square stands a yellow building, which is a brewery. One of the best and largest in the city. Mental note: must come back and try this beer.
Jake wanted to stop off at the coffee shop across the way to get some fresh roasted coffee beans. And I mean FRESH. There was literally a guy roasting a new shipment right there. It took awhile but Jake was thrilled to have coffee beans that we will get to enjoy later on the boat!
Continuing on we hit up Plaza San Francisco and Roberto taught us about all of the different cultures that have made their mark here – Spanish, European, American, Polish, Danish, German, Russian, Australian, even Asian. This city is so eclectic, and with this wealth of diverse influence it is unlike any other city in the world. Cuban people are free to practice any religion they want, which was surprising to learn.
There is a statue that had a crowd of people around it. Apparently this is a representation of “The Gentleman of Paris” who was a man that was in fact not from Paris and was not a Gentleman. He was from Spain and he was a homeless man. But he was also a story teller and a great one at that. He kind of looked like Jack Sparrow with long hair and a large overcoat and beard. I guess there is a custom in Cuba where children will put fingers on his beard and shoulder and make a wish and then the wish will come true.
There were a lot of people out here today – women smoking cigars in fancy dresses, men dressed as clowns, even animals dogs and cats dressed up. This is how it is – trying to make an extra buck here and there is completely normal. Jake was approached a lot by women all saying that they loved his beard. He looks like a young Fidel!
We continued along through familiar streets, but learning the significance of different buildings in relation to Cuba’s history. One area he pointed out, that we would have missed completely, is the Calle Mercaderes Mural. The mural is a depiction of aristocrats that lived in an earlier age, but what was super cool is that it was painted as an exact replica of the building directly across from it – and how it would look with people standing there. Not only that, but the actual way it was created was pretty darn cool.
It was so enjoyable spending the morning with Roberto. You can tell that he is very passionate about his home. Whenever we were approached by street hustlers, he easily shooed them off (from which I picked up the handy words he used to dissuade them). He spoke about the fact that Havana is a big city – most people are good people just trying to survive. He even talked about the hustlers and how its something to be expected in any large city. He didn’t make excuses for it which I appreciated.
The tour continued to the “nice” part of town with big beautiful shops made of stained glass; an old apothecary turned into perfume shop where I was completely blown away by the quality of scents created right there. Sue and I were thinking we will definitely come back here. 😉
One of our last stops was back at Plaza de Catedral where Roberto pointed out a great paladar. A paladar is a private-run restaurant and before the 90’s was illegal in Cuba. When they first opened, the experience would basically feel like you were invited into a family’s home and given a home-cooked meal (which you would pay for, but it would give you that authentic experience). Today, paladars are quite common to supplement government-run restaurants. But they still cook authentic, home-made Cuban food at much higher prices.
Roberto took us to the front (which is basically inside a family’s home) and talked to the young girl about setting us up with a reservation. We had to put a deposit of 5CUC down, and though we were a little concerned, we decided that Roberto wouldn’t lead us astray. The one caveat is that the girl explained (to Roberto since she spoke such rapid Spanish) that there are 2 paladar’s that share this small alley and it would be easy to sit at the wrong one. She gave us a little card that we should present when we come back tonight, and confirm that we’re in the right place.
It was early afternoon when Roberto left us (he was well worth the price!) and we decided to go for a light lunch back at Cheers. We followed that with an afternoon siesta.
It was about 530PM when we came back out on the streets. We moseyed around, taking our time to walk in the direction of the Paladar. None of us were exactly sure of its location, though we had a general idea. We found ourselves back at La Bodeguita Del Medio. There was a young guy (probably early 20’s) sitting off to the side with his head buried in a sketch book. Next to him were pieces of artwork all laid out – some GORGEOUS colored pencil drawings. It was like a tractor beam lured me in and I found myself chatting with him (he spoke very good English) and complimenting his work. We learned that this guy was saving up to visit his girlfriend in Spain and eventually struck up a deal to buy some of his work – 3 pieces of art for a discount. Don bought 2 and I bought the 3rd. All of them were gorgeous!
The streets were crowded with locals, tourists and bird-doggers. One lady chatted with Don and showed him another promising looking club/restaurant to which we may come back later, as we already have “reservations”. A younger guy came up to us trying to get us over to his place. We took out our card, which he grabbed and said it was his brother’s paladar. He guided us out of the crowd towards the familiar little square.
This is definitely the same place, but as we sat down, we all noted that we’re on the wrong side. Don confirmed by looking at the menu that this is not the “right side” of the alley. They guy who initially seated us was gone, and of course, we all assumed it was another hustle. Jake just got up and walked over into the paladar from earlier, which is actually like walking into someone’s home. Its totally weird, but normal I guess. He found the girl who took our reservation and explained everything. She was furious with the guys who “stole” us and yelled some strong words in Spanish. She then led us over to a different on the other side.
Apparently this happens a lot. And its a big faux-pas! She reassured us that we were all good and even gave us our 5CUC back (since it was just to reserve a spot). We were delighted by this place and soon enjoyed fresh drinks of lemonade, sangria and mojitos. All of us ordered Ropa Vieja (on Roberto’s recommendation) which is a classic Cuban dish. It is served family style as slow-roasted and shredded beef with rice, beans, plantains, cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers, and other assorted potatoes, squash or veggies.
As the last light faded and the city lights illuminated we were enjoying our meal and beautiful salsa music. We have learned by now that anytime there is live music, the band will pass around a basket that you must tip (good thing we have so much CUP). It was dark when the tip jar came around. We accidentally put in a Bahamian coin, to which the band actually came back to return it (we corrected our mistake of course). But it seems crazy that Bahamian money can’t be used ANYWHERE outside of Bahamas.
Bird doggers were lined up rallying the passersby, children were playing soccer just behind my seat, dogs, cats and some older people would walk by trying to get us to give them money or food. It was a little awkward and the family would attempt to shoo them away but they kept coming back. While this was going on, we noticed that a commotion was starting at the end of the square. Two bird doggers started arguing and then it escalated to punches. The whole group standing around jumped in to break up the fight. It all happened in less than a minute, but two policemen showed up in under a minute. The two young guys fighting were surrounded by locals who tried to persuade the police that there is no problem. It is clear that the locals were frightened. I wonder what sort of punishment would make people act so quickly? Maybe I don’t want to know.
Still it was a super amazing meal despite the weirdness. The bill was WAY expensive (there is a 40% tax added to paladar meals) so it was almost 90CUC (where the night before Don and Sue spent only 10-12CUC for their amazing meal). Quite the jump! And while the ambiance was lacking (espeically the old homeless man with a cathedar who stunk of rum and wouldn’t leave us alone at our table) we got a truly authentic Cuban experience. Am I right? 😉 And it was awesome!
The city at night is pretty amazing. We took a leisurely walk through the streets. Some were full of people and others were completely abandoned. Half the streets were lit up and others in darkness. To the naked eye they would seem foreboding and dangerous. But after having been here for a little while, we know that the streets are safe (there are police on almost every corner) and like anywhere, most people here are just doing their own thing. There really is no need to be afraid, a realization that was eye-opening for Jake and I.
On our walk back to the apartment, Don was approached by two “ladies of the night”. He was joking around with them about not having any money and shooed them away. It was quite funny to witness. That was also the night that “El Blanco Leche” was born. Having been approached by beggars for milk-money (leche) for their babies has finally taken its toll! Don made a hilarious joke about feeding the babies himself rather than hand out money (sort of like a shepherd to his flock of sheep)!…. El Blanco Leche or the White Milk… a saying that would live on in infamy – or as long as we know Don.